Constructing Situations: Guy Debord's detournement of fiction

At the beginning of an essay on Debord’s cinema, Agamben recalls a conversation that he had with Debord himself. He says: “when I was tempted (as I still am) to consider Guy Debord a philosopher, he told me: ‘I’m not a philosopher, I’m a strategist.’ Debord saw his time as an incessant war that engaged his entire life in a strategy.” [1]
‘I’m not a philosopher, I’m a strategist.’ Of this statement made by Debord on Debord, and directed to Agamben the philosopher, we could try to read the drive, in relation with its context: I’m not interested in establishing an ontology, or defining a contemporary state of things, but rather in moving some “pieces” of a Game of War, some elements available to me, in a certain way. [2]

I’m not interested in defining society, a contemporary society of the spectacle, unless this allows me to set up and play a game, to fight in a certain way: to define a society of the spectacle is already part of a strategy. I’m not interested in describing the contemporary state of art in relation to fiction, unless this becomes part of a strategy that allows me to “do”, or rather to “act”, in a certain way.

In an essay written by Agamben on Guy Debord’s Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, there is a section titled “Situation” where Agamben explains the Situationists’ practice of “constructed situations” addressing the distinction between art and life – fiction and reality. “What is a constructed situation?” asks Agamben. “A definition contained in the first issue of the Internationale Situationniste states that this is a moment in life, concretely and deliberately constructed through the collective organization of a unified milieu and through a play of events. Nothing would be more misleading, however, than to think the situation as a privileged or exceptional moment in the sense of aestheticism. The situation is neither the becoming-art of life nor the becoming-life of art.” Agamben defines constructed situation as disconnected from the dialectic between art and life of the avant-garde movements of the 20th century, detaching constructed situation from the realm of “art” intended as aestheticism. He keeps using the two terms of the polarity “art and life”, construction and life, a polarity that is also at play in the expression “constructed situation”, which combines the opposites of “construction” and “situation”, art and life, fiction and reality.

Agamben continues: “‘the geography of the true life’ is a point of indifference between life and art, where both undergo a decisive metamorphosis simultaneously. This point of indifference constitutes a politics that is finally adequate to its tasks. The Situationists counteract capitalism – which ‘concretely and deliberately’ organizes environments and events in order to depotentiate life – with a concrete, although opposite project. Their utopia is, once again, perfectly topical because it locates itself in the taking-place of what it wants to overthrow.” [3]

Agamben talks here about a “point of indifference” between art and life (“indifference” translates the Italian “indistinzione”), that is, a point where it is no longer possible to distinguish (distinguere) what before was distinguishable. The politics that Agamben defines as adequate to its tasks, finds place in this very in-distinction of reality and fiction, art and life, construction and situation: in an in-distinction that becomes suspension of ends. And here comes the important contribution Agamben provides to a reading of Guy Debord and the Situationist International: this in-distinction that a constructed situation creates is not oppositional to capitalism. A constructed situation, says Agamben, is not utopian, it is perfectly topic, it occupies the very terrain of spectacular capitalism, it does not poses itself outside or in opposition to it. I quote again Agamben defining capitalism through Debord: “capitalism – which ‘concretely and deliberately’ organizes environments and events in order to depotentiate life.” Agamben, after Debord, says here: it is capitalism itself that constructs situations, it is capitalism that, producing an indifference between reality and fiction, organizes environments and events, in order to “de-potentiate life”.

The Situationists take up spectacular constructions and “do” them again differently, they repeat them, they “act” them differently. The material is the same (the spectacular material, the spectacular city, the spectacular imagery), it is the “how” that differs. That “how to do” which replaces the “what to do”, as Agamben says in the postscript of La comunita’ che viene. [4]

Agamben’s own “how to do” can be described in terms of Means without End: the title of the book where this essay on Debord is included. On one side we have capitalism that constructs situations, neutralizing modern oppositions like reality and fiction in order to pursue its ends. On the other side we have the Situationists who construct situations, but with no ends. A concrete example of this can be the Situationists derive, which is as a specific kind of constructed situation, where, for instance, we can trace random lines on a map and then walk throughout the city following those lines, removing from a walk the everyday aim of going from point A to point B. [5]

Agamben’s “how to do” is that of a suspension of opposites, where the end, the solution, the “positive” that has to prevail over the “negative”, is suspended as well (Agamben sometimes calls this suspension “potentiality”). But in order to produce this suspension, too often Agamben reinforces binary oppositions even where they are already otherwise disrupted. Also, this suspension of opposites takes in Agamben the sense of a redemption, and in such a way it ends up appearing as a balanced and safe solution. This sense of redemption and safety runs across Agamben’s reading of Debord as well. Agamben suspension has to be contested, we need to depart from it, to get back to Debord away from Agamben’s balance. 

Debord’s constructed situations are a way of repeating, a doubling of the situations that the spectacle already constructs. We can see the becoming spectacle of life analysed by Debord, this becoming fiction of reality, as a sort of theatre everywhere, where our life is exposed (“bare” would say Agamben), whilst we are compelled to flexibly perform a set of shifting roles that are “constructed” for us and by us. Big Brother and other reality shows can be read as a paroxysm of this theatre everyday, where “life” – affects, intensities, desires – is put at work. The reality show machine is relatively simple, but its principles are not different from any other spectacular machine that is part of our life: Big Brother is just the most evident manifestation of an art[ifice] inextricable from life – a theatre everywhere.

For Debord, it is precisely in this becoming spectacle of life that the possibility for another politics emerges. This is the sense of what it could be defined as Debord’s “doubling”: his constructed situations become a performing again the same script, a script that is assigned to us and modelled by us. This doubling is a repeating of what is already here, what is available to us. At times it seems to become an erotic skirmish with the enemy. Debord’s “how to do”, the swerve produced through his doubling, the difference between a spectacular constructed situation and its Situationist double, is “passionate”, as the very passage of Debord used by Agamben for him to write his own definition of constructed situation indicates: constructed situation is [and this is Debord, and the sentence is very similar to that of Agamben above] “the concrete construction of temporary settings of life and their transformation into a higher, passionate nature”. [6] And this passionate nature is what, of Debord, Agamben is not able to deal with, precisely because “passion”, as Foucault reminds us in a conversation with the German filmmaker Werner Schroeter, functions in a radically different way from love, with its polarity of love and hatred. [7]

As an example of this “passionate nature” of Debord we could take the last of the six films Debord made. In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni is a sort of autobiographical film, where Debord narrates himself, using, as he always does in his cinema, the very material produced by the spectacle: Hollywood movies, comics, adverts, cut and reassembled together. To these fragmented spectacular images Debord adds in his films the monotony of his own voice, reading a dense and theoretical script, which is also made by fragments taken from other texts. Debord superimposes onto the visual fragments of the spectacle the tediousness of his own voice, and everything trembles. The cuts of images are cut again by a reading that, in itself, is composed by cuts. Technically, Debord’s films are detournements: we could read detournement, together with derive, as constructed situations, as combining construction with life, art with subjectivity.

Debord uses the material produced by the spectacle not so much to denounce it or criticize it, but to do something else together with it, for something else to happen. He produces a double of the spectacle where the images are subtracted from a spectacular logic: dancing girls playing with their bras are cut out from the consequentiality that makes them dance for us to buy a bra. In Debord’s film they are as beautiful and seductive as before, but now they are beautiful for no reason, the seduce us for nothing.

Agamben himself takes the last film by Debord as an example of his cinema, and he makes a reading of it in terms of messianic redemption: the spectacle produced through the media gets redeemed by Debord’s cinema. This redemption falls back into the very logic of ends, of finality, that Agamben rejects. [8] Debord’s repetition is not messianic, it is passionate, it is a doubling where your performing self looses the sense of a positive / negative, love / hate distinction, in such a way that a suspension, the safety of a balance, becomes impossible. I drag my enemy into the dust of my own desertification. We rub against each other, so that we both start crumbling to dust.

In his autobiographical film Debord, beside using spectacular material, adds other images that he shoots himself: the periphery of Venice taken from a boat, and photographs of himself. Not only this, in In girum Debord “dresses himself up” with the costumes of Hollywood heroes. The film starts with images taken from a Zorro film, whilst Debord’s voice proposes “to substitute the futile adventures narrated by cinema with the examination of an important subject: myself”. And we watch Zorro in the company of a dying man who says: “before dying can I know who you are?”. Zorro sends away the others and takes his mask down, but we are not allowed to see Zorro’s / Debord’s face.

What is detourned here is Debord himself, together with his spectacular doubles. Debord is the protagonist of this constructed situation where he becomes many others. Debord as a young boy, as a fat old man, as a photograph fading away. Debord as a comics’ hero, as a warrior, as the General Custer, Debord as a “strategist”, playing his War Game, Debord as the 19th century criminal Lacenaire, who says: “I’m not cruel, I’m logical, I have declared war on society”, and follows: “Have you murdered many people lately, Pierre-Francois? - No sweetheart, look: no trace of blood on my hands, just ink stains”. It is only towards the end of the film that Debord himself, with his own voice, talks about himself. And it is Debord as a triumphal star that arises, Debord doubling a Hollywood star, Debord as a counter-star, the apotheosis of Debord himself as the star that never appears, and that makes the entire Hollywood, the entire spectacle, the entire “society” collapse. “And what has been of myself in this disastrous wreck, that I find necessary, of which it could be said I have been contributing, because it is surely true that I have dedicated myself to nothing else?” It is Debord himself that here, in this ridiculous apotheosis, collapses, provoking the disastrous wreck that we see on screen, dragging everything else together with himself.

This is “Debord’s detournement of fiction”, from an in-distinction of reality and fiction, to an in-distinction of reality and fiction, spectacle and life: Debord does not subtract himself from this “blurring of reality and fiction”, from the becoming art, or artifice, of life. He does not aim to recuperate a pure life as life was, or rather it was supposed to be, in a “modern” past, he does not aim to recuperate a pure art as art was, or rather it was supposed to be, in a “modern” past. Debord’s art becomes an “art of life”, an art of life were the self, life itself, is always at stake.

Debord’s “how” becomes passionate, it becomes “affective”, in the sense that Deleuze and Guattari give to the term “affect”, affect as something that cannot be grasped, or defined, or bent to an end. [9 ] The “how to do” of Debord’s fiction, his strategy, is the encounter of art and subjectivity, of fiction and life, beyond or beside fiction, and beyond and beside subjectivity. It is not fiction that differentiates art from non art, but affects: art as production of affects, as Deleuze and Guattari say, and in Debord, art as an affective staging, where you stage your self in such a way that art ceases to be a sphere to be protected, and becomes, not “information”, nor “economy”: it becomes politics.



[1] Agamben, “Difference and Repetition: on Guy Debord’s Films”, in Tom McDonough ed., Guy Debord and the Situationist International,  p 313

[2] Guy Debord and Alice Becker-Ho, A Game of War

[3] Agamben, “Marginal Notes on Commentaries in the Society of the Spectacle”, in Means without Ends, pp 78-79

[4] “Tiqqun de la noche”, in Agamben, La comunita’ che viene, pp 92-93

[5] There is more to this Agamben’s “means without ends”, as already the ambivalence of the title suggests: means without end can be also intended as “endless means”, pointing to the reconceptualising of a temporal dimension which is central in Agamben’s politics. In a crucial passage of the Coming Community we find a wonderful formulation of Agamben’s “how” as “a tiny displacement”, which is spatial but also temporal, it is the displacement of the coming of a messianic tale: the small, almost imperceptible displacement of the coming revolution. Agamben, The Coming Community, p 53

[6] Guy Debord, “Report on the Construction of Situations” in AAVV, Guy Debord and the Situationist International, cit., p. 44

[7] Foucault, “Passion According to Werner Schroeter”, in Foucault Live, pp.313-321

[8] Agamben, “Difference and Repetition: on Guy Debord’s Films”, in Tom McDonough ed., Guy Debord and the Situationist International,  pp 313-320

[9] Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy, pp 163-199